O'Connor does not allow much
youthful freshness to enter these stories. Bevel is regularly
called "old man" by his father and the party guests.
He has learned somewhat cynically how to get what he wants from
adults: "...he found the way to get new (picture books)
was to tear up the ones he had." Even Mrs. Connin's children
are "pale" with eyes "gray as glass and "stern
faces". Norton wears a faded green t-shirt with a shadowy
cowboy, and his eyes "were a paler blue than his father's
as if they might have faded like the shirt..." Sheppard,
himself relatively young, has hair that is "already white".
And adolescent Rufus Johnson is introduced as "a thin bony-face
boy in a wet black suit" resembling "an irate drenched
crow". His consciousness of evil, aside from this description,
carries him well beyond the kingdom of childhood innocence. Through
this consistent aging of young characters, the text suggests
the pervasive nature of human failure, original sin.
Despite (or perhaps because
of) this subtext of sinfulness, it is primarily the children
who value religious symbols, whether it is Bevel struggling to
enter the Kingdom of Christ or Norton seeking reunion with his
mother "in the sky" . The painful irony is that through
a literal (or mis-) reading of these religious metaphors, the
boys die. But the text does not posit tragedy in those deaths
so much as in the world which led up to and remains after those
deaths. Tragedy exists in those characters who are left with
a knowledge of responsibility for those deaths. In this sense
Bevel's parents are not on the scene and are therefore denied
(at least within the bounds of the story) an awareness of their
sin. Sheppard, however, must face the results of his failure
head-on. While Norton has "launched his flight into space,"
Sheppard is left "on the edge of a pit."
In "The River" another shadowy character appears to represent, in a rural setting, the failures of the urban parents. This is Mr. Paradise, "who comes (to the river) to show he ain't been healed." Bevel learns of him just after he has been trampled by the hog. (This episode also illuminates Bevel and his worth by recalling the New Testament:
"Do not give dogs what is holy, do not throw your pearls to the pigs : they will only trample on them, and turn and tear you to pieces."
Along these lines, the pearl
is Bevel and "you" is the world of parents and others
upon whom a Judgment must fall.) Mr. Paradise is one strand of
the "moral education" Bevel receives at Mrs. Connin's
house. We begin with the innocence of picture-book pink pigs
in bow ties and move to "another face, gray, wet and sour"
of the actual hog. This pig with a deformed ear is then aligned
in Bevel's mind with Mr. Paradise who, Mrs. Connin says, has
a cancerous ear. This string of associations is not complete
though until Bevel notices the bible illustration of Jesus driving
pigs out of a man. Mr. Paradise assumes satanic proportions in
Bevel's consciousness, but he is also the only person to attempt
Bevel's physical rescue at the end.
Images of food, malnourishment and eating stand out in both stories, suggesting that both children are starving in some sense. Harry Ashfield spontaneously chooses the name "Bevel", perhaps as an unconscious first step away from his malnourished life in the apartment (The refrigerator contains "some shriveled vegetables," "a lot of brown oranges," "something fishy in a paper bag," and "a pork bone",) The etymological origins of that name (OFr. "bevel" from "baif", "open-mouthed" from "bayer", "to gape") suggest a mouth open to receive literal or metaphoric food, as Bevel credulously receives the Rev. Bevel Summers' message of salvation along with his very name. An open mouth may also send forth significant matter in the form of words or actual vomit. In "The Lame Shall Enter First" Norton's consumption of a patently unnourishing breakfast and its subsequent upheaval is interwoven with Sheppard's attempt to force-feed the child his liberal-secular dogma. The "limp sweet batter" disgorged by Norton is no less a sign of spiritual woundedness and physical need than the actual club foot of Rufus. This metaphor lies at the story's heart, for in his penultimate moment of awareness Sheppard realizes,
"He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself."
Rufus appropriates the prophetic
gesture of Ezekiel, further welding the metaphors of eating and
vomiting to the story. In this context though, vomiting becomes
not merely a sign of rejection, but of a process necessary to
learn God's will: "Man, eat what is in front of you, eat
this scroll; then go and speak to the Israelites." (Ezk.
"The River" seems
to have a softer tone than "The Lame Shall Enter First".
Viewpoint seems to be the key to this. Where Bevel's viewpoint
is full of wonder, open and exploratory in his need, Sheppard's
need forms a more skeptical, circumscribed and manipulative attitude.
Had this later story been written from Norton's viewpoint, we
would have something quite like "The River". But Sheppard's
focal consciousness clarifies the moral dimensions of the adult
world, a world that is more diffuse and indistinct in "The
River. There we encounter, through Bevel's consciousness, the
shadowy, "afflicted," barrens of the parents' world,
the more nourishing yet perilous home of Mrs. Connin, and the
natural skepticism of Mr. Paradise (as immovable as "an
old boulder half hidden in the bushes").
It is notable that both Sheppard
and Mr. Paradise fail to snatch Norton and Bevel back from their
"journeys". In the final paragraph of "The River",
despite Bevel's disappearance, the text maintains the child's
magical/mythical view of Mr. Paradise ("some ancient water
monster"), yet simultaneously conveys a sense of that adult's
tragic awareness as he "stood empty-handed, staring with
dull eyes as far down the river line as he could see." If
asked, Mr. Paradise might say that the tragedy was the child's
death, but readers are left with the added sense that the deepest
tragedy is the failed vision of the adult world. Bevel and Norton
could see much farther than any of the adult figures. And their
vision consisted of images of self-worth and connectedness. The
river offered Bevel a world in which "I count." The
sky held a mother for Norton. Mr. Paradise and Sheppard could
see only water and stars.
The characters of Rufus Johnson
and Rev. Bevel Summers are neither young nor old. Both stand
on that narrow strip of land between the tidepool of youth and
the ocean of adulthood. Both have accepted (and operate from)
a base of religious belief and language that establishes them
as pivotal and prophetic figures in a doubt-ridden, secular world.
Rev. Bevel's exact age is uncertain. ("He looked as if he
might have been nineteen years old.") But he is perhaps
Rufus' future self. ("If I do repent, I'll be a preacher.")
Something in the text's treatment of these two suggests that
theirs is the most enviable position of any of the stories' characters.
Their awareness of sin precludes a retreat to the raw experience
of mute childhood, but their religious faith generates enough
hope to ward off the grim despair of age. Within this tension
they are the most mature figures in the stories. The Rev. Bevel
seems to surpass even Mrs. Connin (with her concentration on
the preacher's ability to heal) in his proclamation that, "If
you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you
ain't come for Jesus. You can't leave your pain in the river...I
never told nobody that."
This is not an easy salvation;
he is not offering cheap grace or a quick fix. Rufus, even though
he stands with "the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts,"
maintains a sense of truth (of the reality of evil) far beyond
the self-deluding psychological truisms of Sheppard. Rufus and
Rev. Bevel, in their respective alliances with the forces of
damnation and salvation, are actually the only spokesmen for
truth within their stories.
As mentioned above, when Sheppard
discovered Norton wrapped in his mother's coat he (Sheppard)
"winced as if he had seen the larva inside a cocoon."
The implication of an impending metamorphosis is central to both
stories. "The River" uses explicit baptismal imagery,
rich with its sense of movement from one form of life to another.
But despite the preacher's insistence that "it ain't this
muddy water that saves you," Bevel (perhaps distracted by
"the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in
the air") does not understand the figurative nature of the
preacher's words: "This old red suffering stream goes on...slow
to the Kingdom of Christ." But he does recognize the importance
of "You count now...You didn't even count before."
This knowledge is as important to him as the handkerchief and
bible he carries back to the apartment, and it pulls him off
the next morning towards the one place where he knows that he
In a similar vein, Norton'
s barely articulate understanding of Rufus' cosmology offers
such an attractive hope of reunion with his mother that he easily
casts off Sheppard's rationalized universe. As the end approaches,
Norton is shedding his cocoon, which Sheppard notices but typically
misreads: "There was a strange new life in him, the sign
of new and more rugged vices."
Both stories seem to lean on the words of Jesus, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple." (Mt. 11.25) Yet, as we ponder the natures of Bevel and Norton we might well ask, "Are these really children? Might they not be merely allegorical figures of some kind?" Their perceptions and sensitivities seem at odds with the conventional fiction of "the cute kid". This popular notion (most prevalent in television commercials) pales when held up to the light of actual children. Most theories of the nature of children posit in them either the seeds of human goodness or the roots of all evil, an undifferentiated chaos of libido or a perfectly blank slate. But these adult metaphors for children must of necessity remain just that, for it seems we have done everything with children except let them be themselves. O'Connor may use Bevel and Norton as images more than as actual children, but through these images she manages to communicate something of the struggle toward wholeness which is the human project. These two children are needy, but no more so than the adults of these tales. There is a mystery, a depth, to these children that seems impenetrable to the surrounding adults. O'Connor's sense of children and adults, and her subsequent construction of their images in print, seems to echo Wordsworth's sentiment in "Intimations of Immortality",
Bevel and Norton (and their more articulate mentors, Rev. Bevel and Rufus) embody a graceful challenge and resistance to the burden of "custom...deep almost as life."
Tom Murphy, O.